Ealing Studios Rarities Collection (The): Volume 14
Now is a good time to look back over this long-running series of Ealing Rarities. ‘Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character’ – that was the inscription put up on a studio wall by Michael Balcon when he sold out to the BBC in 1955. The great thing about the series is the way it has honoured this formula by covering the full quarter-century from 1930. Balcon had been running the place since 1938, creating a close-knit team and a brand name, the Ealing that everyone knows, but it was his predecessor, Basil Dean, who had built the studio and created a distinctive output and ethos, even if of a less focused kind. Mixing up the films within the same series has not only turned up forgotten treasures from both periods, along with more mundane items, but has helped to reveal continuities.
The first eleven sets of Rarities, four films in each, were an even mixture, 21 titles in all from Dean’s time and 23 from Balcon’s, but since then the score is Dean 12, Balcon 0. Understandably, there were fewer Balcon rarities awaiting rediscovery, since so many of the wartime and post-war films, comedies especially, were known and available already; by now, most of the remaining gaps have been filled. For the third time in a row, then, the new quartet is all pre-1938, and again they were well worth bringing back into circulation – all of them of strong historical interest, and enjoyable in their own right.
They show an Ealing that was already serious about projecting Britain, or at least England: its landscapes, class system, culture. They exploit in cinema terms a range of apt sources: the popular fiction of A.P. Herbert, Conan Doyle and Nevil Shute, and the Northern Music Hall of George Formby. The four films fall clearly into two pairs: two from 1932, still early days for Dean’s Ealing and for synchronised sound cinema, the other two from years later.
The Water Gipsies seems, in fact, to have used Beaconsfield Studios while construction at Ealing was still being finished off in 1931, but much of it was shot on river and canal locations. Its story of the community of canal-boat ‘gipsies’ will be echoed in Painted Boats, directed by Charles Crichton at Ealing itself and on location in 1945. The earlier film, following Herbert’s novel, ranges much wider in geographical and class terms, in the manner of J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, another book which Dean wanted to film at this time but lost to Michael Balcon, then based at Gaumont-British. Ann Todd, 1940s star here making her film debut, is at the centre of it. As Jane, daughter of a canal family, she juggles the attractions and affections of three men: upper-class artist Bryan, earnest socialist Ernie, and illiterate boatman Fred. There are echoes of Annie Ondra from Hitchcock’s Blackmail in the way that Jane’s risqué posing for the artist helps to unleash scarily possessive male violence; both she and her sister Lily are, like Ondra there and in The Manxman, portrayed sympathetically as women with their own strong desires. In Lily’s words, ‘All that stuff in the pictures about it being worse than death – well, I don’t believe it is.’ The lively mix of documentary and melodrama, of convention and transgression, of country and city locations, and of canal-side and society interiors, makes The Water Gipsies into a rich relic of the cinema of its moment, and of the kind of England it could project.
It was the last of three films directed for Dean by Maurice Elvey, silent film veteran who had done time in Hollywood. The first was Sally in Our Alley, with Gracie Fields (long since available on DVD); the second was A Honeymoon Adventure, the major revelation of Rarities 9. Dean wrote condescendingly about him, and did not try to retain him, and the same applied to another man formed in silent cinema, Graham Cutts. He too made three early films for Dean, including, likewise, a Gracie Fields vehicle, Look on the Bright Side, and a water-based story, Three Men in a Boat (part of Rarities 12). In between, he directed The Sign of Four, or to give it its full title, The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Case. Like The Water Gipsies, it is put together with the kind of cinematic skills that Dean, steeped in theatre as he was, ought to have exploited further.
Again there is a link ahead to the later Ealing: the story is adapted by W.P. Lipscomb, who became for a time Balcon’s script editor. Where Doyle began his story with Holmes and Watson, and as usual unravelled the mystery for the reader via Holmes’s investigation, the film gives us the backstory first, and only reaches Baker Street after 22 minutes of a 73-minute film: an entirely defensible strategy, since we become much freer to enjoy Holmes’s feats of deduction, his disguises, his interactions with Watson and with the police, and the chase climax. Arthur Wontner ranks high among the screen Holmeses, and as Watson Ian Hunter has a role not unlike his Fred in The Water Gipsies – slow but amiable, and with his moment of triumph at the end. The role of Thaddeus Sholto, son of a cheating father, is played by Miles Malleson, who adapted The Water Gipsies for the screen. Malleson is affectionately remembered for a mass of later comic roles, of which Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest is typical, but these two films remind us how much wider his range was both as actor and, especially, as writer. He deserves a biography.
The two later films in the set are both, for whatever reason, directed by Americans. Lonely Road seems to be the one British film made by James Flood, among a mass of obscure Hollywood titles of the 1920s and '30s. It brings together actors already familiar from this series, notably the two stars, Clive Brook (The Dictator, and – for Balcon – The Ware Case and Return to Yesterday: Rarities 13, 5 and 11) and Dean’s protegée and wife Victoria Hopper, much more natural and affecting here in a contemporary role than she was as Lorna Doone (11) or as Constance Mozart in Whom the Gods Love (9). The Nevil Shute story, based on a plot to influence a British General Election result, is bafflingly dated, but there is much to enjoy in the variety of 1930s settings and, especially, in the cross-class romance between Hopper and Brook, Leeds escort-woman and hard-driving wealthy ex-officer.
Ethel Coleridge, one of those character actors fondly recognised (like Malleson) by face if not by name, has a neat cameo as a disapproving housekeeper in the Brook mansion. She was there in Laburnum Grove (Rarities 12) and she is there again in Feather Your Nest as George Formby’s prospective mother-in-law, again radiating disapproval. This was Formby’s fifth film, and his third for Ealing; he would make three more under Dean, and then five under Balcon, so in himself he embodies the principle of continuity between the two Ealing regimes – as does Clive Brook, as do others like future director Ronald Neame, cinematographer on many Ealing films on either side of the Balcon takeover, including Feather Your Nest. It is puzzling that this should have the status of a rarity, since it has all the elements that made Formby so popular, including one of his trademark songs, ‘Leaning on a Lamp-post’, whose recording is the centrepiece of a lively wish-fulfilment narrative. Underlying the comedy is a clear sense of the realities of hardship in Depression-era Britain, where job security was precarious and homes and furniture could be rapidly repossessed – realities which Formby helped audiences to overcome in fantasy for the duration of the picture. Director William Beaudine had a massively long and prolific Hollywood career, interrupted by a dozen mid-1930s films shot in quick succession with a range of British comedians, including four made earlier with Will Hay for Michael Balcon at Gainsborough. This was one thing that changed at Ealing after 1938: no Hollywood director would thereafter be given a share in the work of ‘projecting Britain and the British character’.
A global byword for cinematic quality of a quintessentially British nature, Ealing Studios made more than 150 films over a three decade period. A cherished and significant part of British film history, only selected films from both the Ealing and Associated Talking Pictures strands have previously been made available on home video format - with some remaining unseen since their original theatrical release.
The Ealing Rarities Collection redresses this imbalance - featuring new transfers from the best available elements, in their correct aspect ratio, this multi-volume collection showcases a range of scarce films from both Basil Dean's and Michael Balcon's tenure as studio head, making them available once more to the general public.
LONELY ROAD (1936)
On a drunken drive to the coast, an ex-naval officer interrupts what he believes to be a smuggling operation, and informs Scotland Yard...
Black and White / 70 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
THE WATER GIPSIES (1932)
A.P. Herbert's famous tale about a girl living on a Thames barge, and her love for a local artist.
Black and White / 74 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
THE SIGN OF FOUR (1932)
Arthur Wontner stars in the classic Sherlock Holmes mystery in which an ex-convict seeks revenge on a man who failed to honour his word.
Black and White / 74 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
FEATHER YOUR NEST (1937)
Unseen since its original theatrical release, this George Formby vehicle stars George as a gramophone record factory worker who creates a hit song.
Black and White / 78 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English